Paganism

Paganism describes the old religions of the world – before Christianity and Islam came to dominate. We generally use the term in a historical context, especially in areas that are Christian, Muslim or non-religious today. A follower of paganism is a pagan; a modern revivalist is a neopagan.

Pagans did not consider themselves members of a particular ‘religion’ – belief in gods and spirits was simply a part of life. To ancient people, denying the existence of Jupiter or Ra was like denying lightning. There was no concept of ‘religion’ either; religion, society and government were one and the same. 

Paganism was not one creed or set of beliefs but a variety of practices and ideas about the natural world. Pagans did, however, have some ideas in common:

  • polytheism – belief in many gods
  • myths and legends
  • animal sacrifice
  • sacred places like temples, groves and shrines
  • belief in magic

Pagans believed supernatural forces influenced everyday life; these included spirits, ancestors and all-powerful gods. Such forces decided fortune, weather and the elements; everything mortals could not control. Deities could be common across whole cultures or specific to a single region, household, lake or tree.

One could appease a deity by praying to them or offering the life of an animal or (in some cultures) a person. Belief in one god was not exclusive, nor did pagans strictly adhere to gods from their culture. Ancient Rome, for example, had temples to not only its native gods but deities from Greece, Egypt and Persia. Gods represented everything from the sea and sky to abstract concepts like victory or love.

Pagans told stories about their gods but did not treat these stories as gospel truth. Their purpose was less to dictate the origins of the universe than to explain natural phenomena, justify rituals and entertain. It did not matter if narratives contradicted one another.

Most important to pagans were their rituals, for keeping on the good side of the gods was essential to a healthy society. For pagans, what one did was more important than what one believed. In Greece and Rome, in particular, ethics was not the domain of the gods but philosophers.

Many pagans believed in an afterlife. In the Egyptian and Norse traditions, dying and living the right way was immensely important. For others, the afterlife was either dreary, irrelevant, or non-existent. Worshipping gods and spirits were less about benefits in this world than in the next.

The word pagan likely comes from the Latin word paganus, which means ‘country dweller’. When Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, it spread first amongst the urban poor, and then the elite. By the 4th century BC, only the rural population – the pagani­- still worshipped the old gods. The name stuck. As pagans did not consider themselves as belonging to a particular religion; the term is best used when distinguishing old believers from the newer faiths which did.

Sources: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity

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Norse Mythology

Arbo Painting - The Wild Hunt of Odin, Norse Mythology by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Norse Mythology is the body of pre-Christian stories from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. After the Classical tradition, Norse mythology is the best preserved in Europe. Reaching their heyday in the Viking age, tales of the Norse gods still influence film and literature today.

Norse mythology comes from the northern branch of the paganism once followed in Germany, Scandinavia and England, and is by far the most extensive and best preserved. 

Snorri Sturlusson, an Icelandic priest and politician, recorded the old oral tales in the Prose Edda in the 13th century. Unlike the monks who recorded the Slavic and Celtic myths around the same time, Sturlusson did not overtly Christianise this subject matter but told the Norse stories as is. We therefore know far more about them today.

The Poetic Edda, recorded in the same time, is a compilation of 31 poems by unknown authors and a key source.

Norse mythology preserves many old Indo-European motifs, including:

  • a world tree
  • a hound at the gates of the underworld
  • dragon slaying heroes
  • the wild hunt
  • a prominant thunder god

Yggdrasil is the tree at the centre of the universe. A dragon called the Niddhog gnaws at its roots and from it forms nine worlds:

  • Asgard – home of the Aesir
  • Vanaheim – home of the Vanir
  • Alfheim – home of the light elves
  • Dokkalfheim – home of the dark elves
  • Midgard – our world
  • Jotunheim – home of the giants
  • Svartalfheim – home of the dwarves
  • Muspelheim – the world of fire
  • Niflheim – the world of ice

The universe started in a collision of the primordial worlds of ice and fire. A giant called Ymir emerged from the ice, whom Odin – father of the gods – slew. His body formed the earth, and his blood the sea. 

Jötnar (singular jötun), came from Ymir’s armpits. Commonly translated as ‘giants’, they have similar powers to the gods and represent antagonistic forces. While sometimes mentors, helpers or lovers to the Aesir, they are most often foes. As Odin, Loki and Tyr are half-Jötunn, the jötnar may have been a rival family of gods rather than different beings altogether. 

Norsemen worshipped the Aesir. These include taciturn Odin, who sacrifices his right eye for knowledge, and hot-blooded Thor, who wields a hammer and protects humankind. The Aesir’s power surpasses humanity, but they are not immortal. They rely on golden apples to retain their youth and know when and how they will die.  

Main Gods:

  • Odin – god of wisdom, poetry and war. 
  • Thor – his son, god of thunder.
  • Loki – god of mischief and deceit
  • Freyja – goddess of magic, fertility and beauty.
  • Freyr – her brother, god of fertility
  • Njord – their father, god of the sea
  • Heimdall – god of vigilance, watches the bridge between Asgard and the other worlds.
  • Hel – Loki’s daughter, goddess of the underworld
  • Frigg – Odin’s wife, goddess of motherhood and clairvoyance
  • Baldr – their son, god of beauty.

Freyja, Frey and Njord were originally Vanir, a rival group of gods. After an inconclusive war, they went to live with the Aesir in Asgard.

In Icelandic, nouns have an ‘r’ at the end when they are the subject. So, for example, names like Odin and Njord are sometimes rendered Odinr and Njordr.

The Norse believed if they died in battle, female warriors called Valkyries would fly them to Valhalla, where they would feast all night and fight all day, only to be born again and again. Odin was raising an army for Ragnarok. Those who died of natural causes go to the dreary realm of Hel. 

Loki, the trickster, is the enemy within. His scheming starts as simple mischief but grows more and more destructive. His shenanigans breed monstrous children who end up causing Armageddon.

Ragnarok is the end of the world. Norse mythology is unique in that it has an ending. In the final battle, the Aesir and their foes destroy each other and Asgard crumbles. Once the dust settles, however, the few survivors rebuild a new and better world.

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Inuit Mythology

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Inuit Mythology covers the indigenous myths and legends of Arctic North America. These myths eschew the creation narratives of most traditions in favour of grisly cautionary tales. They are often as harsh as the environment which made them. Their deities blend the concepts of spirits, humans, animals and monsters.

The Inuit worldview is animistic. Invisible spirits called tornait (singular, tornit) imbue every aspect of the world. Most are harmful and held in fear and reverence by humans. As natural death is so common in the Arctic, respecting taboos and superstitions is essential. Tornait can take the visible form of stones, bears or humans.

Inuit deities resemble powerful tornait, to be feared and appeased rather than worshipped. These include:

  • Sedna, ruler of Adlivun
  • Anguta, her father and guide of dead souls. In some Greenland traditions, he is a creator god.
  • Nanook – spirit of polar bears
  • Malina – spirit of the sun
  • Igaluk – spirit of the moon

Adlivun is the world beneath the sea. Spirits of the dead travel to this frozen wasteland when they die and remain for a year, then travel to the elusive Land of the Moon, where deer roam and no snow falls. Shamans called annagguit may travel to Adlivun in their dreams to appease the goddess Sedna when a taboo is broken.

Sedna is the mistress of animals. She was once a human woman, tricked into marriage by an evil spirit or, in some traditions, a fulmar.

Her father, Anguta, slew the spirit and took Sedna back on his canoe. On the way home, however, a terrible storm brewed that threatened to kill them both. To appease the ocean, Sedna’s father pushed her off the boat. When she grabbed a hold of the canoe, Anguta cut off her fingers and sent Sedna to the bottom of the sea. 

Her fingers became the creatures of the ocean – the seals, walrus, whales and fish. She descended to Adlivun, where she transformed into a walrus-like creature that rules the underwater realm to this day.

In the Land of the Moon, ancestral spirits play a game with a walrus’s head. Their movements form the Aurora Borealis.

Malina, the spirit of the sun, was once a beautiful woman. Her brother Igaluk lusted after her and made her flee across the sky. To this day, Igaluk chases his sister, neglecting even to eat. As time passes, he withers until he disappears for three days eat once more. Occasionally, on a solar eclipse, he catches up. Igaluk lives on an igloo on the moon with the souls of dead animals. The legend differs amongst tribes: in some versions, the sister is the moon, the brother the sun.

.: INUIT MYTHOLOGY:.

Legends of Sauman Kar -an ancient race of giants– are likely misremembered accounts of the Dorset Culture who lived in the Arctic before the Inuit came. Other mythical creatures include polar bears who walk upright and live in igloos, akhlut – wolf-orca hybrids and qallupaluit – hideous creatures who lurk in the ocean and drown disobedient children. 

Sources: Franz Boas – The Central Eskimo (1888), Canadian Encyclopedia, Inuit Myths, Philip Wilkinson – Myths and Legends (2009)

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Māori Mythology

Maori Myths and Legends ⋆ The Sound Temple

Māori Mythology encompasses the traditional creation narratives, legends and folktales of New Zealand. Deriving from the Polynesian tradition, Māori mythology is among the world’s youngest. Its stories survive today through accounts recorded by 19th-century British scholars and oral tradition.

Because Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, were never a single nation, and because their stories transmitted by word of mouth, there is not one mythological narrative. Key details differ from place to place. The most familiar stories come from North Island traditions, many of which British governor Sir George Grey recorded in his ‘Nga Mahi a nga Tipuna’ (1853). 

Ātua are supernatural beings resembling gods or deities. Over 70 in number, they personify all aspects of the living world. Many genealogies trace descent to a particular atua. Some of the most well-known include:

  • Tāne-Mahuta – atua of the forests and birds. In wooded New Zealand, he, not Tangaroa is humanity’s tutelary deity.
  • Tangaroa – atua of the ocean and its creatures. Analogous to Tangaloa/Kanaloa – the sea god of Polynesian mythology.
  • Tāwhiri-mātea – atua of the weather. 
  • Tū-mata-uenga – atua of war.
  • Tama-nui-te-rā – atua of the sun. 
  • Rongo-ma-tāne – atua of kumara (sweet potato), cultivated foods and peace.
  • Ruaumoko – atua of earthquakes.
  • Whiro – atua of misfortune.
  • Mahuika – atua of fire.
  • Hine-nui-te-pō – atua of death.
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Long ago, the Sky Father Rangi-nui and the Earth Mother Papa-tū-ā-nūkū joined in a tight and loving embrace. Their 70 children, the original ātua, lived in the dark and confined space between them. Some wanted to separate the two; others did not. Eventually, Tāne-mahuta wrenched his parents apart with his legs and forever separated the sky from the earth, letting light into the world. To this day, Rangi-nui and Papa-tū-ā-nūkū grieve their separation. 

Our world is one of many, each layered above and below. Some traditions speak of an atua called Io-matua-kore, the uncreated one, who dwells in the highest plane. Whiro, who tried to usurp Tāne, dwells in the lowest.

Each of the ātua bestowed a piece of their essence on the first person, meaning although humans die, we too are divine. 

Māui, a demigod appearing across Polynesian mythology, is one of the most famous figures of the Māori tradition. His deeds include:

  • fishing out the North Island of New Zealand
  • tethering the sun so it passed slowly across the sky
  • stealing fire from the goddess Mahuika and granting it to the world

Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death, shepherds the souls of the dead to the next world. Māui met his doom when trying to defy her.

Te Urunga - The Sunrise Experience - Maunga Hikurangi

Māori myth blends into history with the tales of discovery and migration from Polynesia. There are stories of fearsome ogres, moving mountains, dragon-like taniwha, elf-like turehu, and bloodthirsty sea demons called ponaturi.

As the ātua represent natural forces, they are still significant for many in New Zealand today.

Sources: Witi Ihimaera – Navigating the Stars (2020), Te Ara Encyclopedia

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Myths and Legends

The Art of the Shahnama

Myths and legends are the sacred narratives of a culture. Like music, they are a human universal. Most myths have ancient origins and are transposed across generations by spoken word or sacred writings. Seldom are they ascribed to a single author. These stories blend religion with history, literature and science. They are the oldest recorded stories in the world.

Myths explain the way the world is through story. Carrying a deeper ‘spiritual truth’, they often deal with the origins of the universe, the deeds of supernatural beings and heroic individuals. Myths encapsulate a culture’s collective values and heritage; they both inform and reflect their worldview. Myths create cohesion and common values across a society and people who have never met.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of ‘Sapiens’:

Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers.

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Finnish Folklorist Lauri Honko:

Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature, and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behaviour to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.

‘Mythology’ refers to a culture’s collective body of myths and legends. The word myth comes from the Greek ‘mythos’, meaning story.

Examples of Myth: 

  • The Osiris Myth
  • The Great Flood
  • The Ramayana

In modern English, ‘myth’ is sometimes used to describe something commonly believed but untrue. This is not the scholarly definition, however. Experts seldom speculate whether a particular myth is empirically ‘true’ or not. A sacred narrative is the primary definition of a myth.

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Legends, as defined by Oxford Dictionary, are ‘traditional [stories] sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated.’ Typically, they seem more credible than myths and often focus on heroic or saintly human characters instead of divinities. 

Examples of Legends:

  • The Trojan War
  • King Arthur and the Holy Grail
  • El Dorado

Folk Tales are traditional tales from a particular culture. Unlike myths and legends, folk tales are not religious and focus on ordinary people or magical creatures rather than deities and heroes. While high literature, and epic poetry is often recorded by a culture’s elite, folk tales spring from the oral tradition of the common people.

East of the Sun West of the Moon | Fairy Tale Heart ...

Examples of Folk Tales:

  • Androcles and the Lion
  • Brothers Grimms’ Fairy tales
  • The One Thousand and One Nights

Because myths, legends and folk tales are primarily oral and are retold by different peoples, the same story can have multiple versions, with names and key details varying. Through that measure, they would constantly improve. Most myths and legends do not have an official version.

Most of these traditional stories are thousands of years old. The staying power of myths is a testament to their value. 

Sources: Lauri Honko – the Problem of Defining Myth, Oxford Dictionary, Philip Wilkinson – Myths and Legends, Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens

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Folklore of the Orkney Islands

A Pilgrimage to the Orkney Islands - Why We Became Human

Orcadian Folklore covers the folk traditions, superstitions and myths of the Orkney Islands. This archipelago, in the northern tip of Scotland, shares traditions with the Shetlands and Faroe Islands that reflect its Norse-Gaelic heritage. It includes eerie accounts of sea serpents, trows and shapeshifting seals.

The Orkneys have a population of 22,000 and a landscape of treeless hills and towering crags. Strong winds are common and temperatures rarely exceed 12 degrees celcius. 

In the Stone Age, indigenous Orcadians built villages and megaliths out of stone slabs. The Picts inhabited the islands in Roman times. In the 9th century, Vikings took over and ruled the Orkneys until Scotland annexed the region in 1472. Today both the Orkney dialect and gene pool is three-quarters Scottish and one-quarter Scandinavian. 

Two factors give Orkney folklore its unique flavour:

  • Geography. The North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean in the Orkneys, making for notoriously stormy waters. Seals, sharks and sea birds are a common sight, drowning a common death. 
  • Ruins. Megaliths, barrow mounds and ancient stone villages dominate the Orkneys. Built around 3,000 BC, they awed later inhabitants and earned a hallowed reputation. Ancient sites inspired myths of fairies and ‘hidden people’ who called them home.
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Trows are the foremost of these ‘hidden people’. Squat goblin-like creatures, they inhabit hinterlands and barrows of Orkney. Their name derives from the Scandinavian ‘troll’. Like trolls, they are ugly and malicious, like fairies small and mischievous. Trows kidnap human babies and replace them with their own. The ‘hogboon’ was a more benevolent house-spirit.

Sea Serpents are common. The Stoorworm was a sea dragon with a monstrous appetite. According to legend, Assipattle the farmer’s son, slew it by sneaking into the Stoorworm’s belly and lighting a peat fire in its liver. In 1804 fishermen found the Stronsay Beast, an unidentified carcass washed up at sea – 4 feet wide and 10 feet long. Scientists concluded it was a decomposed basking shark. 

Selkies are shapeshifters who take the form of humans on land and seals at sea. While their human forms are beguiling, they can only revert through their sealskin. Stories abound of selkies who take human lovers and the complications that subsequently arise. Selkie myths spread from the Orkneys to Iceland, the Faroes, Shetlands, western Scotland and parts of Ireland.

Finnfolk are malicious sea spirits who abduct humans. Their summer home is the vanishing isle of Hildaland, their winter home is Finnfolkaheem, deep beneath the sea. Finnmen prey on fishermen who sail too far out to sea. Their daughters are mermaids. If one fails to find a human husband, she must marry a finnman and will rapidly wither into a haggish ‘finnwife’ thereafter. They then take to land and funnel silver back to their husbands. Orcadians blamed finnfolk for death at sea. 

Selkies and Finnfolk may be of common origin. There are three possible explanations:

  1. Sami. The Norwegians used to view their reindeer herding neighbours as magic-workers to be feared and avoided. They called them ‘Finnar’. The finnfolk could have come from misremembered accounts brought by Norwegian colonists.
  2. Inuit. Orcadian fishermen occasionally saw Greenland Inuit at sea. Dressed in sealskin robes and rowing canoes, they looked alien to the fisherman, who kept their distance and reported the sightings to their families.
  3. Medical conditions. Syndallacty is when children have conjoined fingers and/or toes resembling a seal’s flipper. It is hereditary and used to be common in the Orkneys; people claimed it came from selkie ancestry.

Sources: Orkneyjar, Owlcation.

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How Syuna the Rockfish got his Flat Head (Yahghan Legend)

Bahía Lapataia is a bay located on the Beagle Channel in ...

Disclaimer: This is a legend of the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, as recorded by Lucas Bridges in his 1948 book ‘Uttermost Part of the Earth’. The words are his, not mine.

Some miles to the east of Lanushwaia (Woodpeacker Harbour) there is a flat shingle point, and east of this still is a steep, rocky coast with sheltered coves here and there, suitable for canoes. The best of these little harbours is Wujyasima (Water in the Doorway), once a favourite site for Yahgan wigwams.

Once upon a time a young girl left home at Wujyasima and walked alone round to the shingle point, where she began to play, running down the beach after the receding waves and back again as the breakers rolled in. Watching her unseen was a lustful old sea-lion; and when a great wave swept her off her feet, she found the creature by her side. Like all Yahgan women, the maiden was a good swimmer, and therefore sought to evade him. But by keeping between her and the shore, and forcing her father and farther out to sea, he at length exhausted her and she was glad to rest her hand on his neck.

Now that her life depended on him, the maiden began to feel quite friendly towards her strange escort. He swam with her for many miles until they reached a great rock, in which there was a cave. The girl knew that she could never swim home without help, so she decided to accept the inevitable, and took up residence with the sea-lion in the cave. He brought her abundance of fish, which, as there was no fire, she ate raw.

Royalty Free South American Sea Lion Pictures, Images and ...Time passed and a son was born to them. In shape he resembled a human child, but he was covered with hair, like a seal. The boy grew quickly and was company for his mother, especially when he learned to talk. This the old sea-lion could never do, yet, because he was always so kind and considerate, the young woman grew exceedingly fond of him.

Nevertheless she longed intensely to see her own country and people again. She managed to make her wishes known to him, and one day all three of them set out for Wujyasima. At times mother and son swam beside their protector, at others he towed them through the water at a great pace; and sometimes they rode on his back.

At last they landed on the shingle point. The sea-lion flopped up the beach and lay down to rest in the warm sunshine, while the mother, taking her queer little son by the hand, walked to Wujyasima. In the village she found a number of her relatives, who had long given her up for dead. When she told them her story, great was their surprise and deep their interest in her funny little hybrid son.

After the first excitement had died down, the women of the village suggested they should go into their canoes eastward along the rocks, to look for deep-water mussels and sea-urchins, which have the size and shape of flattish apples, with hard shells covered with stiff, spike-like bristles. The young mother accompanied them on this excursion, while the men and children remained behind in the settlement.

The children began to play games, in which the little visitor joined boisterously. The men, however, longed for meat, and knowing there was a seal lying on the beach, one said :

“Why do sit here hungry?”

So they took their spears and, creeping up to the old sea-lion, killed him. Laden with meat, they returned to the village and began to cook the meal. The children sniffed the delicious odour of roasting seal and gathered round the fire. When the time came for the meat to be distributed, the young visitor received his piece with the rest. He tasted it and cried with delight:

“Amma sum undupa!” (“ It is seal meat!”)

Then, eating as he went, he ran to meet his mother, who was just returning. The canoes came alongside a steep rock, which at that state of the tide served as a jetty, and the women stepped ashore with their baskets of sea-urchins. The little boy ran up to his mother and offered her the last morsel of his meat, saying it tasted good. In a flash she realized what had happened. She snatched a large sea-urchin from her basket and struck her child on the forehead with it. He fell into deep water, instantly changed into syuna the rockfish and swam away.

Lesser spotted catshark3The other women went up to the wigwams and feasted on roasted seal meat, but the mother refused to eat, and mourned alone for her lost son and his kindly old father. She never afterwards took a husband from among her own people.

If you examine a syuna you will find that its head is flat and that it is covered with the little pit-marks left by the bristles of the sea-urchin, which goes far to prove that the story is true.

Source: Lucas Bridges – Uttermost Part of the Earth

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